The Bad Batch (2016)
Written & Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
The film begins promisingly. A young woman is tattooed on her neck and tossed on the other side of a fence that spans the U.S.-Mexico border. Signage indicates that this is a no man’s land, a place where the refuse of the United States is now tossed in an unspecified future point in time. The woman finds a run-down car where she takes a bit of respite only to be chased down and captured by a bizarre tribe of body-building cannibals. All of this sounds like it could be the makings a new post-Apocalyptica, refashioning the tropes of Mad Max into something of the 21st century and female-driven. Yet, all of the promises of Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night feels squandered in what becomes an aimless character-deficient story.
The Bad Batch is the name given to all the people the U.S. deems unfit for society and then tosses on the other side of the fence. I’m completely fine that we don’t get the technicals of what happened to the Mexican government or the whole history of this program. The movie isn’t interested in those things and, much like A Girl, we’re in the realm of metaphor and dreamlike logic. I love films like that, I immediately think of the work of Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow, Mandy). The problem this picture has is that its central character, Arlen, has zero character development. Her actions have no consequences on what happens to her, and she, like the script, is aimless.
Arlen is captured by cannibals who take an arm and leg to eat. She eventually escapes by bludgeoning her captor with a metal pipe and rolling away with her back on a skateboard. The tribe never attempts to pursue her, and the apparent death of the person who captured her isn’t of note to them. Arlen is brought to the haven of Comfort, where she broods about her treatment. This results in her taking a pistol and heading towards the cannibal enclave. She comes across one of the cannibal women and her child scavenging and kills the woman. For no real reason, the child follows Arlen.
Up to this point, the picture had been cutting to Miami Man, one of the maneaters but who had zero interactions with Arlen. The woman she killed was his mate, and the child is his daughter. He goes investigating when they don’t come home and finds her body in the junkyard. A scavenger directs him towards Comfort. Ah, you think, a showdown between Miami Man and Arlen. Nope. Even when the child is reunited with Miami Man, she doesn’t think to say, “Hey dad, this is the lady that killed mom.” Characters’ actions are consistent or feel like they add up to a cohesive story. This leads to the picture having no themes or guiding point.
When you stand back and look at The Bad Batch as a whole, it is a messy collection of stylistic flourishes. If you can enjoy the picture from that perspective, then I’m glad you like it. For me, I need the anchor of characterization to help me appreciate the aesthetic. There are lots of eye-rolling philosophy tossed into the dialogue, but none of it is coherent or seems to mean anything more significant. Characters aren’t really metaphors for anything, just wandering things that collide with each other every once in a while.
In A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, Amirpour was able to take stylistic elements of film genres she loved (spaghetti westerns, black and white horror) and repurpose them into a picture that worked. This was because she had protagonists that had motivations, and when someone did something, there was a reaction to that in the world. The ending of A Girl hits like a brick because the audience understands that Arash has had a sudden realization about The Girl and what she’s done. The end of The Bad Batch has zero emotional resonance, it just sort of ends because this is where it ends and you’ll likely have no interest in revisiting this world.